Broadway Playwright Arthur Laurents Dies At 93 Laurents, best known for writing the books for the landmark Broadway musicals Gypsy and West Side Story, died Thursday. Fresh Air remembers the writer and director with excerpts from a 1990 interview.
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Broadway Playwright Arthur Laurents Dies At 93

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Broadway Playwright Arthur Laurents Dies At 93

Broadway Playwright Arthur Laurents Dies At 93

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(Soundbite of music)

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Playwright, screenwriter, novelist and director Arthur Laurents died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93. Laurents wrote the books for the landmark Broadway musicals "Gypsy" and "West Side Story," and he wrote the novel and screenplay for the Hollywood hit "The Way We Were," starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Laurents grew up in Brooklyn. He wrote plays and screenplays in the 40s, but his career was interrupted when he was blacklisted for several years, because hed worked for civil rights causes and joined a Marxist study group. Laurents collaborated with Leonard Bernstein and a young Stephen Sondheim on "West Side Story," which opened up on Broadway in 1957. Soon after, he worked with Sondheim and Jule Styne on "Gypsy," which starred Ethel Merman as Rose.

Heres one of the big numbers from the original cast recording.

(Soundbite of song, "Some People")

Ms. ETHEL MERMAN (Actress; Singer) (Singing) Some people can get a thrill knitting sweaters and sitting still. That's okay for some people who don't know they're alive.

Some people can thrive and bloom, living life in the living room. That's perfect for some people of 105. But I at least gotta try, when I think of all the sights that I gotta see and all the places I gotta play, all the things that I gotta be at. And come on, papa, what do you say?

Some people can be content playing bingo and paying rent. That's peachy for some people, for some hum-drum people to be, but some people ain't me.

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Arthur Laurents in 1990, as he was directing a revival of "Gypsy," starring Tyne Daly as Rose. Laurents felt this new production could include elements from the book that were left out of the original production -as they were considered a little too dark for Broadway.

Mr. ARTHUR LAURENTS (Playwright, screenwriter, novelist, director): The production was rather sweet. It laid off a lot of things that, it being 1989, I was able to do. It's very different from the other productions. It goes much more deeply into the relationships, into what I would call the dark side of it.

GROSS: Whats an example of something that was too unpleasant for the original production that you could go into now?

Mr. LAURENTS: Well, it still is. I mean mother is still sacrosanct in America and they don't like - a lot of people don't like seeing this mother who is not the most pleasant mother in the world. But also there is the relationship between Rose and Herbie the agent is extremely sexual now. It has elements of romance but it's distinctly a man-woman relationship. That was never played before.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now in the original production Ethel Merman starred as Rose.

Mr. LAURENTS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Now from what I've read about the original production, you weren't really satisfied with her performance.

Mr. LAURENTS: You didn't read that any place.

GROSS: Well, what I read was that you - that you refer to her as an opening night performance, someone who gave her all on opening night...

Mr. LAURENTS: Yeah, she gave her all but...

GROSS: But then after that it kind of diminished a little bit.

Mr. LAURENTS: Thats true. Thats true. I'm very grateful to Merman because I don't think they would have done the show without her...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LAURENTS: ...even though she was on the skids, as it were, at that time. She had had a flop or two. And as a matter of fact, the show opened with almost no advance. And if we hadn't gotten good reviews, David Merrick, the producer, told me we'd play six weeks and that was it. So she did us a great service and for that time, she was terrific, but it was never what I felt the performance should be.

GROSS: Well, I read that one night you had a talk with her in front of the whole cast about her performance - about her not giving her all. What did you say to her?

Mr. LAURENTS: I don't know where you read that.

GROSS: I think it was in "Sondheim & Company."

Mr. LAURENTS: Well, it's only semi-true.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LAURENTS: What it was, I don't think she really she wasn't really an actress. She didnt know that she had taken to walking through the show. But what I called her on was that she and Jack Klugman, who was - played opposite her, the show had been running six months and they were breaking up on stage telling each other jokes, which I think is insulting to an audience. The audience comes, make them laugh. Dont - not each other. And I called her on that.

GROSS: What was her reaction?

Mr. LAURENTS: Oh, as though she were a naughty little child who'd been spanked. She took it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LAURENTS: Went right on doing it again.

GROSS: Now you directed the 1973 London production...

Mr. LAURENTS: Yes I did. Yeah.

GROSS: ...of "Gypsy" with Angela Lansbury.

Mr. LAURENTS: Right.

GROSS: And I just know this production through the cast recording, which I think is wonderful. Tell me about casting Angela Lansbury in the part and directing her in the role of Rose.

Mr. LAURENTS: That again, was totally different. She's a very fine actress and they wanted to do the show in London. Itd never been played in London, because when it originally opened, Merman was going to do it in London and then some agent unwisely convinced her, and she unwisely let herself be convinced, that she was so terrific that she should go on a concert tour of the United States. So she refused to do it in London. They would have no substitutes and her concert tour did not do well, which is the understatement of this interview.

So, it had never been done in London, they wanted to see it. And the producers wanted Angie. I knew her, Id worked with her before and we did it in London. And again, it was different from this production because the emphasis was more on the comedic quality. She's a really terrific comedienne, Angela, and Rose was quite a reach for her. There's a kind of earthiness, a, if you will, trashiness about Rose that was that's very difficult for Angie to get. But in her own terms, she was terrific. There was no relationship between her again, and the agent.

GROSS: There were wonderful songs in "Gypsy." Now I've heard Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for "Gypsy," say that he sometimes likes to incorporate lines from the script right into a song, so that the lyric is really speaking the mind of the librettist, the person who wrote the book. Did that happen in "Gypsy?"

Mr. LAURENTS: It happened a lot. Steve is wonderful to collaborate with and he thinks I am, because I say, go ahead, raid the dialogue. For example, the first line of "Mr. Goldstone" - have an egg roll, Mr. Goldstone - was taken from the dialogue. But he means really more than that. He is one of the few, very few, too few, lyricists who knows that each character speaks differently and sings differently. They have a different diction. So he waits or he waited, in the case of "Gypsy," for example, till I could write the characters. He would see how they would speak. That affected what lyrics he wrote for them. Their language is different.

GROSS: Do you ever feel that the librettist gets the least credit in a musical? You know, in a musical you always hear so much more sometimes about the songwriters.

Every librettist feels that, and it's accurate. No musical is ever referred to as the work of the librettist. Its only referred to in terms of the composer and - if the lyricist is as famous as Stephen Sondheim - the lyricist. I think it goes back to opera where you don't know who wrote the libretto for the operas.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LAURENTS: You only know the composer. And I think one of the reasons we dont have more and better playwrights writing musicals is that everybody has a need for recognition, which is, by the way, what "Gypsy" is really about. And it is so frustrating not to get any recognition for what one has done in creating a musical that a lot of playwrights simply won't try. And you get the people write letters to the Times and the critics say oh yes, and then for two minutes they recognize the librettist and then they don't. It's simply a given. The reason I do it is I just love musical theater and I love writing them. I'm stuck.

GROSS: When you are writing the book for musical, do you have a sense in your mind of where the songs belong and what the transition into the song is going to be like?

Mr. LAURENTS: Total. That's the way I write. I plan for that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LAURENTS: And I do as much as possible to write into the music, let the music take over, lift the characters to the point where they can't do anything else but sing.

GROSS: Can you give us an example?

Mr. LAURENTS: Yes. At the end of the first act of "Gypsy" theres a song called "Everythings Coming Up Roses," which if you haven't seen the show, you think as a kind of happy, jazzy Broadway tune. What happens with that song is one of the reasons why I don't want it and we all don't want it to be made into a movie again. What is done with that song you can only do on the stage. You can't do it in the movies because are too literal. What happens is a woman literally goes off her rocker and bursts into that song. This is a woman who suddenly has an enormous disappointment, shes furious, shes angry, she rages, and she rages until she can't anymore and it comes out musically. It's against the emotion. It's all of this ridiculous and insane optimism that this woman has and it's done in music.

GROSS: Well, tell you what, why dont we listen to "Everythings Coming Up Roses," Angela Lansbury singing. This is from the London production that you directed in 1973.

Mr. LAURENTS: And just remember that listening to her...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LAURENTS: ...are her daughter and her lover and they are terrified and stunned by this woman's madness.

(Soundbite of song, "Everythings Coming Up Roses")

Ms. ANGELA LANSBURY (Actress; Singer): (Singing) I had a dream, a dream about you, baby. It's gonna come true, baby. They think that we're through, but baby, you'll be swell. You'll be great. Gonna have the whole world on the plate. Starting here, starting now, honey, everything's coming up roses.

Clear the decks. Clear the tracks. You've got nothing to do but relax. Blow a kiss. Take a bow. Honey, everything's coming up roses. Now's your inning. Stand the world on it's ear. Set it spinning. That will be just the beginning.

Curtain up. Light the lights.

DAVIES: Angela Lansbury from the London production of "Gypsy." We'll hear more of Terry's 1990 interview with Arthur Laurents after a break. Laurents died yesterday at the age of 93.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1990 interview with playwright, screenwriter and director Arthur Laurents, who died yesterday at the age of 93. Before we get back to their conversation, let's hear the "Jet Song" from the original Broadway production of "West Side Story."

(Soundbite of the "Jet Song")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dyin' day. When you're a Jet, if the spit hits the fan, you got brothers around, you're a family man.

Unidentified Singers: ((Singing) You're never alone, you're never disconnected. You're home with your own. When company's expected, you're well protected. Then you are set with a capital J, which you'll never forget till they cart you away. When you're a Jet, you stay a Jet.

Unidentified Actor #1: I know Tony like I know me. And I guarantee you can count him in. In, out, let's get crackin'.

Unidentified Actor #2: Where you gonna find Bernardo?

Unidentified Actor #3: At the dance tonight at the gym.

Unidentified Actor #2: But the gym's neutral territory.

Unidentified Actor #3: I'm gonna make nice there with him. I'm only gonna challenge him.

Unidentified Actor #1: Great, Daddy-O.

Unidentified Actor #3: So everybody dress up sweet and sharp. Meet Tony and me at 10. and walk tall.

Unidentified Actor #1: We always walk tall.

Unidentified Actor #2: We're Jets. The greatest.

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) When you're a Jet, you're the top cat in town. You're the gold medal kid with the heavyweight crown. When you're a Jet, you're the swingin'est thing.

GROSS: Let me ask you about the book that you wrote for "West Side Story." I believe the idea for a musical based on "Romeo and Juliet" was the choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Mr. LAURENTS: Thats right.

GROSS: How did he originally pitch it to you? What was the initial idea he proposed?

Mr. LAURENTS: The initial idea was quite different from what it was. It was about a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy in New York over Easter and Passover.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAURENTS: And I thought that was "Abies Iris Rose" and I wanted no part of it. And then several years passed and I happened to be in California and Lenny Bernstein was in California. By that time, juvenile delinquent gangs had come into being. And on the coast it was a great deal, great problems with Chicanos which in New York was Puerto Ricans. That's where the idea came from - the front page. And thats what the and then Lenny and I called Jerry and said, we're ready to go.

GROSS: Did you have any reservations about singing and dancing gangs?

Mr. LAURENTS: On the stage, no. in the movie, yes.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LAURENTS: On the stage right, the stage is total illusion. You come into a box and you see this proscenia and then people hop on and hop off, theres an orchestra in the pit. But people have imagination. The theater makes you use it and you will accept almost anything. But movies to me are either, the nature of the medium is such that movies are either realistic, by that I mean naturalistic or surrealistic. To me, the movie of "West Side Story" I know was a great hit, but when those boys came tour jeteing down the street I didn't believe it for a minute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAURENTS: I still dont.

GROSS: Now you didnt write the screenplay for either "Gypsy" or "West Side Story."

Mr. LAURENTS: No.

GROSS: Did you want to?

Mr. LAURENTS: I wasn't asked to write the screenplay for "West Side Story" and I wanted to. I was asked to write the screenplay for "Gypsy" and I was going to till they told me they cast Rosalind Russell and the director was Mervyn Le Roy, and I bowed out. We had wanted Judy Garland. They didn't because they said she had a weight problem. But, of course, with the path of time, "Gypsy" covers 15 years. Even if she had a weight problem, weight went up and down. It wouldn't mattered.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. What did you think of the movie?

Mr. LAURENTS: Of "Gypsy?"

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LAURENTS: Oh, I think it's a candidate for one of the worst movies I ever saw.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, you know, a lot of...

Mr. LAURENTS: Its ridiculous. It's ridiculous. The only good thing in the movie was Natalie Wood. RIP.

GROSS: Well, just give me a sense of what you hated about the film.

Mr. LAURENTS: Well, Rosalind Russell was very busy being Rosalind Russell. Again, she was wonderful in "Wonderful Town." She's wonderful when she played this what they used to call a dame, this hard-driving executive, smart cracking, certainly middle class, if not upper-middle-class woman. This is nothing from this blowsy, vulgar, common, trashy Rose. I mean she wore chic clothes. I remember her black-and-white high-heels in the train station. It was just all off.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LAURENTS: I remember we used to check up on them and in the immortal words of George Kaufman, remove the improvements.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Youve written for movies and for the stage.

Mr. LAURENTS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What are some of the primary differences between writing for the two forms?

Mr. LAURENTS: The other day there was a movie I was considering writing. Oliver Stone was going to produce it and he called me up and said why don't you want to do it? I said because the day I finish the script I'm out on my ass. I wrote my first movie in, I think, 1948. This is now 1990. There's a lot of talk but essentially, the attitude is not changed. The writer is the low man on the totem pole. Well, they'll woo you and they'll pursue you. You are the least paid, comparatively, of the actors and the directors. And the great god and Hollywood as in this country is money. That determines respect. And once they have the script, as it says in "Gypsy," so long Rose. Don't slam the door as you leave. Youre out. And they do, not only do they cast and play it as they want, they rewrite it as they want.

GROSS: Now one of your screenplays is "The Way We Were," which you also wrote a novel of the same name.

Mr. LAURENTS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Theres blacklisting in that, you know, in Hollywood.

Mr. LAURENTS: Right.

GROSS: Were you ever blacklisted yourself?

Mr. LAURENTS: Absolutely. In the witch hunt. And theres an example of what they do. The climactic scene in that story, in that movie was shot and neatly cut out.

GROSS: What was the scene?

Mr. LAURENTS: The scene was where the Barbra Streisand character says to the Robert Redford character - he says to her the studio says I have a subversive wife and they will fire me unless you go and become an informer. And he wants her to inform to save his butt. And she says well, there's a very simple solution, willy-nilly circumstances forced you into this. I will get a divorce. You won't have a subversive wife. What they kept was willy-nilly circumstances forced you into a solution. I will get a divorce. The whole business about informing and subversion, which was what the picture was basically about, they cut out. They said the public doesn't want it. They want a romance. How did they know? I don't know. Maybe they were looking in a crystal ball. But it's so unsatisfied.

The picture was a great success. But what I wanted to say in the picture, what the picture was about, gets thrown out with the garbage. So it's not very interesting, exciting, fulfilling - I could go on with the words - for me to work in movies. The theater with all its handicaps is exciting and a bigger challenge and you can do more and you have more fun.

GROSS: Thank you so much Arthur Laurents for talking with us.

Mr. LAURENTS: Thank you.

DAVIES: Arthur Laurents speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. Laurents died yesterday at the age of 93.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of song, "Somethings Coming")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Could be? Who knows? Theres something due any day. I will know right away. Soon as it shows.

It may come cannon-ballin down from the sky. Gleam in its eye. Bright as a rose. Who knows?

Its only just out of reach. Down a block, on the beach. Under a tree. I got a feeling theres a miracle due, gonna come through, coming to me.

Could it be? Yes it could. Somethings coming. Something good. If I can wait. Somethings coming. I don't know what it is. But it is gonna to be great.

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